Children engaged in arts go on to have better ‘academic self-image’ and more positive attitudes to school – landmark Arts Council/ESRI study

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School provision leads to increased participation in cultural activities outside school

Irish children who participate in artistic and cultural activities cope better with schoolwork and have more positive attitudes towards school later on than those who are less engaged, according to a landmark Arts Council-ESRI study.

The study, which is being published by the Arts Council today, has identified that children aged 9 who frequently read and attend classes in music, dance or drama have an improved ‘academic self-image’ – or the confidence to cope with schoolwork – by age 13. They are also happier, have reduced anxiety, better academic skills and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.

TV watching is shown to lead to improved cognitive development but increased socio-emotional difficulties. More active cultural participation (e.g. reading, structured cultural activities) improves both wellbeing and cognitive development according to this study.

After-school cultural activities, such as choir and drama groups, were also found to have a significant influence in fostering broader interest in the arts outside of school hours. According to the survey’s findings, young people attending schools which offer drama classes are more likely to read frequently outside school. Levels of TV watching are lower in schools providing choir or dance, while playing computer games is also a less frequent activity among children attending schools that provide music after school.

This major study, conducted by the ESRI on behalf of the Arts Council, draws on Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) data to assess arts and cultural participation specifically among 3, 5, 9 and 13-year-olds. Growing Up in Ireland is an initiative of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in association with the Department of Social Protection and the Central Statistics Office. The study measures the impact of arts and cultural participation on the cognitive development and emotional wellbeing of children and young people in Ireland.

There are striking gender differences in levels of participation in the arts from as young an age as three. These gender differences persist throughout childhood, with girls’ schools offering more arts activities, and more girls participating after school. Socio-economic background is also found to have a strong impact on participation levels, with household income also emerging as a barrier to participation in cultural activities after school. Girls are more likely to read than boys, regardless of their socio-economic background.  In addition, girls as young as 5 paint, draw, enjoy music or dance more than their male peers.

The report identified differences in participation rates across communities, including the following:

  • Children from more advantaged families read more frequently and are more likely to take part in structured cultural lessons or clubs;
  • For immigrant families with young children, language emerges as a barrier to participation in the arts.
  • The families of young children with disabilities are highly engaged in cultural activities. However, there are barriers to participation at ages 9 and 13, with fewer children with special needs participating in structured cultural activities.

The report identified a number of significant outcomes among young children engaged in cultural activities, including:

  • For 3 to 5 year olds, reading, painting, drawing, and going on cultural visits led to fewer socio-emotional difficulties;
  • More frequent parent-child reading at age 3 is significantly related to an improvement in vocabulary over the subsequent 2 years.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Director of the Arts Council, Orlaith McBride said:

“This landmark study prises open a rich window of knowledge for those of us who have long been interested in finding out more about the impact that arts and culture has on the cognitive and emotional development of our young people. Now we have a robust evidence-base which gives us deep insights into children’s engagement in a range of activities across multiple contexts – those of home, school and community – and it clearly demonstrates a strong correlation between participation in arts and cultural activities and a child’s wellbeing.

“Moreover, it provides us with a unique glimpse into the mosaic of ways in which children and young people express themselves and interact with the world of culture. Somewhat uniquely, we wanted to take account of children’s engagement in popular culture, including television viewing and digital engagement, as well as involvement in music, dance and drama lessons and in reading for pleasure.

“Particularly interesting is how the report highlights the symbiotic relationship that exists between the arts and our school systems. It shows that increased exposure to the arts makes for better attitudes towards school, while at the same time schools which actively promote the arts are nurturing broader interest in the arts among students.”

Dr Emer Smyth, Head of Social Research Division at the ESRI, added:

“Drawing on the rich seam of Growing Up in Ireland data, the study shows the levels of engagement that children and young people have with arts and culture, and the impact of that engagement on their everyday lives. The findings clearly show the positive emotional and educational effects of taking part in artistic and cultural pursuits.

“Striking gender and social background differences in cultural participation are evident among children as young as 3, highlighting the importance of making cultural activities accessible to all groups of children and young people.  The expansion of the Early Childhood Care and Education programme to two years offers huge potential for early years settings to become an important avenue for children’s access to the arts. Most of the structured cultural activities in which children engage outside school require payment, indicating the importance of providing subsidies to disadvantaged families to ensure more inclusive arts engagement.”

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